An MRI machine uses a magnetic field to produce clear, detailed images of the brain, spine, heart, bones, and other tissues, making it an extremely valuable tool for doctors. Most modern MRI centers can give you a copy of your MRI on a disc or flash drive after your appointment — you may not even need to ask for it specially. While it takes a doctor to make a diagnosis from an MRI, viewing and analyzing your MRI at home is easy — just don't jump to any conclusions without consulting with a doctor.
Loading Your MRI
1. Insert your MRI disc into your computer. Today, you will usually be given a disc with your images on it after your MRI. The main purpose of this is so that you can give the disc to your doctor, but there's nothing wrong with reading your MRI at home. Start by putting the disc into your computer's DVD drive.
2. If the program loads automatically, follow the on-screen prompts. If you're lucky, the program will automatically load when you put the disc into your computer. In this case, simply follow the instructions on screen to install and access the program. Usually, you'll want to use the default option (or "Yes," "OK," etc.) or every prompt you are given.
3. If necessary, install the viewing software. If the software doesn't load automatically, most MRI discs will come with some way to install it on the disc. In general, you'll need to open the disc to explore the files, find this installation program, and run it. The exact steps you need to take will vary depending on how your MRI center has packaged your images on the disc.
4. Load the study. Again, the exact steps you'll need to take here can vary slightly depending on the exact program you have packaged with your images. Generally, most MRI viewers will have some sort of option to load or import images that you can select from the menu bar at the top of the screen. In this case, select this option, then pick the image file on your disc that you'd like to look at.
5. View the images. Most MRI programs start with a large black space on one side of the screen and a smaller toolbar on the other side. If you see small preview pictures of your MRI images in the toolbar, double click on the image you want to view. It should load a large version of the image into the black area.
Making Sense of Your MRI
1. Familiarize yourself with the different MRI viewing schemes. When your MRI first loads up, if you're lucky, it will be immediately obvious what you're looking at. However, in many cases, the image you see may be a completely unintelligible mix of black, white, and grey. Knowing how MRIs are shot can help you make sense of your images.
2. Look for contrast to identify different body features. MRIs are in black and white, which can sometimes make it hard to tell parts of the body apart. Because there's no color, contrast is your best friend. Luckily, different types of tissue show up as different shades on an MRI, so it's easy to see contrast where differing tissues meet.
3. Pick an appealing series layout. MRI programs almost always have the ability to display more than one image at once. This makes it convenient for doctors to compare different views of the same area or even MRIs taken at different times. For most non-doctors, it's easiest to simply choose a one-image-at-a-time layout and cycle through the images individually. However, there should be onscreen instructions to show two, four, or many more images at once, so feel free to play around with this feature.
4. Use the section-cut line to see where cross-sections are located. If you display a cross-sectional image along with a sagittal or coronal image, you may see a section-cut line on the second image. This will be a straight line running through the image, but it may not be present on all MRIs. If your image does have one, this shows where on the second image the cross section is located. You should be able to move the section cut line toward the center, right or left of the image. This will change the larger layout image to show the body from the new direction of the scan.
5. Drag the section-cut line to view new parts of the study. Dragging the section-cut line to a different part of the image allows you to "move around" your MRI images. The image should change your view to the new area automatically.
Analyzing Body Structures
1. Look for non-symmetrical patches. By and large, the body is very symmetrical. If, in your MRI, you notice a patch of lightness or darkness on one side of your body that does not match what's on the other side, this can be cause for concern. Similarly, for parts of the body that have many similar features repeated multiple times, a difference in one of the features can be a sign that something is amiss.
2. Examine the structure of the vertebrae for spinal MRIs. MRIs of the spine are typically some of the easiest for non-doctors to read (especially in sagittal view). Look for noticeable misalignments in the vertebrae or fluid discs. Having just one of either be out of alignment (as in the example above) can be the source of serious pain.
3. Use cross-sectional views to spot abnormalities in brain MRIs. MRIs of the brain tissue are often used to check for brain tumors, abscesses, and other serious problems that can affect the brain. The easiest way to see these things is usually to choose the cross-sectional view, then descend slowly from the top of the head downward. You're looking for anything that's not symmetrical — a dark or light patch that's on one side but not the other is cause for concern.
4. For knee MRIs, look for inconsistencies between the two knees. Comparing coronal views of an injured knee with those of a healthy knee can make it easy to spot problems.
5. Never diagnose yourself from your MRI images. This bears repeating: if you see something that you're not sure about on MRI, don't assume that you have a terrible illness without talking to your doctor. Conversely, if you don't notice anything out of the ordinary on your MRI, don't assume you're fine without talking to your doctor. Ordinary people don't have the knowledge and training to make accurate diagnoses, so, when in doubt, always get the advice of a medical professional.